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Laura's pilgrimages

Seven years on from aggressive Stage 3 HER2 positive breast cancer and thriving, I wanted to raise funding for Action Against Cancer to go towards the charity's support for my oncologist Professor Justin Stebbin's new research centre in Cambridge. Expert medical treatment was an essential part of my journey back to health in 2016 combined with exercise, diet and an integrative approach to healing.

Pilgrimage walks

During summer this year, I organised 12 mile pilgrimage walks for two lovely groups starting at St Mary’s Church in Dinton, Wiltshire, and finishing at Salisbury Cathedral. Snippets of history were woven into the day.

At the tiny hamlet of Baverstock, we visited the small church dedicated to local St Edith, legendary female saint of nearby Wilton. The ancient and long ox drove alongside Grovely Wood and farmland brought us to panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

Dropping down an avenue of majestic beech trees, the route passed into the small market town of Wilton, once the administrative capital of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex. After visiting the remnants of the ancient parish church of St Mary and its beautiful 19th Italianate replacement, the route traversed the boundary of Wilton House estate.

Our final furlong passed across fields to the river with views of Salisbury Cathedral across the water meadows famously painted by Constable. One of the walks ended with the beautiful singing of choral evensong at the Cathedral.

Pilgrimage bike ride

These walks were a prelude to my big pilgrimage of the year – a 246 mile cycle ride from home in Wiltshire via Salisbury to Canterbury in September loosely following the English Cathedrals Cycle Route. It was a most wonderful experience.

Pilgrimage is a uniquely special way to connect with the beauty of nature, landscape and sacred spaces weaving a mysterious magic through and beyond the journey. Seven years on from my brush with cancer, grateful for being alive, I lit a candle of hope in each of the seven cathedrals I visited for all those suffering from cancer and for those who have lost loved ones.

Clear skies beckoned as I embarked on an unfamiliar journey with minimal luggage in two panniers. My first destination was Salisbury Cathedral with its iconic spire, then onwards along tree lined small lanes, through Hampshire countryside and ancient Montisfont, once home to a priory, to Winchester Cathedral with its lofty vaults and stones infused with prayer.

Hot sunshine blazed down on the journey to Portsmouth Cathedral, the urban landscape a noisy contrast to the peace of pockets of woodland along the way of my second day. A pause at the beginning of day three enabled a visit to the ancient church in Bosham on the Sussex coast, where King Canute famously commanded the waves to retreat, then onwards to Chichester Cathedral. Beyond this ancient sacred space, I peddled along the Centurion Way before passing along tracks through tranquil woodland emerging high along the South Down Way with its chalky paths and panoramic views. Slipping down the steep path off the downs to reach the tiny rural church of St Andrew’s Church in Didling with its Saxon font, no electricity and ancient pews was like stepping back in time.

Sunbeams streaming through trees on small lanes heralded the beginning of day four which took me through the quintessentially English village of Chiddingfold, along farmland tracks and through woodland to more hectic Surrey roads nearing Guildford. My destination, the 20th century Cathedral was perched on a hill, its austere exterior encasing an unexpectedly beautiful, airy interior. Cross country at the end of the day I sped along to reach the tranquil haven of Chilworth Abbey with the ethereal chanting of Benedictine monks where I spent the night.

The next day, mostly cross country, was the hardest – across sandy heathland, down tiny bramble lined pathways, and up and down long, steep, stony tracks on the North Downs Way into woodland and across downland. A day of rural beauty in which I earned my rest. A shorter cross-country rural route the next day passed the historic properties of medieval Ingham Mote and Knole with its beautiful deer park, before reaching Malling Abbey, with its deeply spiritual Benedictine nuns and daily office, a haven of tranquility where I stayed for two nights.

A slight detour on the penultimate day accommodated a visit to ancient Rochester Cathedral, the second cathedral built in England, a few years after Canterbury. The final furlong was along the Pilgrims Way, a route trodden by many over the centuries between Winchester and Canterbury Cathedral. Evensong with the beautiful voices of the choir lifting high into this sacred space marked the end of a special journey which continues to resonate beyond its completion.

I covered the cost of my cycle pilgrimage in full so that 100% of funds raised could go to life-saving research. I was overwhelmed by the support I received, with generous donations on my fundraising page, totaling £4,746.

With grateful thanks to everyone who supported my fundraising, and to Justin Stebbing, my oncologist, and all the healthcare professionals, family, friends and community who supported my journey back to health.

Laura Downer

To find out more about walking pilgrimage and the Cathedrals Cycle Route visit

To contact Laura about her cycle challenge or future pilgrimage walks she will organise email

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group of friends in walking coats smiling at camera lady with a bike infront of a cathedral

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